And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Things Chinese

With some poignancy, our Chinese brush painting summer session ended on Saturday. Because not many of these students will be returning to the same class that I hope will be offered in the fall, it felt like saying goodbye to my Wudang retreat friends. I am hoping for a Tuesday evening class in the next session if enough folks register; otherwise classes are daytime, weekdays, attracting retirees and persons of leisure, neither of which I qualify as, yet.

Lessons learned:
Chinese painting is qigong with a brush. There is an altered, heightened perception, not drug-induced, that has to do with looking at things from a different angle, backwards really. As I observe the trees breathing in the breeze from my lanai, I see them differently, more acutely, I see the energy, not the flat tonality and precision that is evoked in western style painting.

Imagine this breathing

An acquaintance, unhappy in Hawaii, once complained that Chinese art was not original, it was not creative, it WENT nowhere. That copying thing. (He also refused to eat with chopsticks, because, he said, they were not a "technological advance.") His home was decorated with lovely 19th century English botanical prints. I do not think he ever accessed the energy, the qi, that is the essence of Chinese painting. My teacher has explained that painting is not to paint what you see, but what you feel. This is a very critical difference in Western and Asian perception in painting. Chinese painting, I have come to understand, is a kind of structured impressionism (is that an oxymoron?)

After class I stopped by my new favorite shop in Chinatown (source of books on painting and supplies and DVDs). The proprietress called me on my cell earlier this week. She had a new book she thought I would be interested in called Things Chinese. I told her I would stop by after class, and incidentally, if she had any more Vincent (drool) Zhao Wen Zhuo/Chiu Cheuk Man videos, I might like to see them too.

"Oh, my favorite, too, "she said. "He so handsome!"

The book was great, the sort of thing I would have picked up if I was in Hong Kong (priced at 98 yuan, but I paid close to twice the value in US dollars, so what, and could have got it a little cheaper on Amazon--there's one left there for you.) It's a nice PRC-produced colorful encyclopedia full of detailed explanations and photos of things I have seen many times in China and come to appreciate. (But I must note that some of the "Chinese things" are Tibetan.) It will be a great resource in my novel-writing. Screen walls, curio stands (one of which my first Chinese landlady/popo in Honolulu had), cloisonne and lacquer ware, dumplings and wolfberry, and pipa, guqin and huqin (musical instruments).

"I'll take it!"

Then she pulled out a bag of videos she had set aside, apparently reading my mind, presenting "Seven Swordsmen" and "Book and Sword." ZWZ stars in them.

"These are what I was going to ask you for!"

So I bought them, as well as an interesting book of Chinese proverbs. One telling proverb was: "A person without a smiling face should not open a shop." I have spent a lot of money at this shop recently because she has a smiling face. Yeah, I know she wants to sell me things, but loyalty to a smiling face means a lot. And she gave me a complimentary copy of "House of Flying Daggers," which sort of covers the overpricing on Things Chinese. Actually, I already have that film on DVD, but it would have been rude to ask for something else, so someone gets it as a Christmas present. (Let me know if you want it.)

I went to my bank last week to get some special certification to effect a stock transfer from my father's estate. The first person I talked to said, quite formally, "This requires an officer of the bank, and there is a $25 fee."

Whatever. Dealing with financial things after a death is just really depressing; Dad did a pretty good job of leaving things in order, but there have been a couple of puzzling items. Even he didn't know why he had these particular stocks, some transfer by Prudential from his life insurance, of which I was the beneficiary.

When the bank officer came to help me, his first question was, "Does this represent more than a million dollars?"

"If it did, do you think I would be here asking for your help? I would send my lawyer. Actually, I think it represents not much more than a thousand dollars."

He did the signature certification, and then said, smiling, "Since you have been banking with us for so long, we'll waive the fee."

This discussion had been about amounts from $25 to a cool million. Still, I was weirdly touched by the acknowledgement of being a loyal customer. It's not the amount, it's the attitude and the service.

Things Chinese.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Power Play

Came home tonight to a power outage. I fully realized the impact after I waited excessively long for the elevator...had to walk up 10 floors. No big deal, I should do this every day, I am way out of shape. (I miss stair climbing in Wudang.)

Although my neighbors were complaining, I find real pleasure in power outages. It is SO quiet. I hear little but the birds, the air moving, no 60 cycle hum in the background. I can hear traffic off in the distance, but I can tell it is distant. A nice time to meditate. The sunset view off my lanai was nice...I must have hundreds of images of this particular view. I wish when I moved into this apartment I had taken a photo of every sunset every day, a sort of discipline.

So, meditating. Which I SORTA did for a while. But when I went to the kitchen to refresh my whiskey & water (lots of old Taoists drink, read the poetry, it's not just about the tea) I noticed that my digital toaster was on. The power was back. Quel dommage, I think sometimes I prefer the dumb grid to the smart one.

But with power back, I can blog!

(And, please go to my blog entry of 7/26/09 which I just completed tonight.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Half Life

Honolulu Harbor from Sand Island

Today--this week really--is a bit of an anniversary--26 years ago we arrived in Hawaii. And it coincides with Hawaii's anniversary of 50 years as a state. I would never have predicted it at the time, but now I have spent fully half my life in the Islands (not counting the years when I measured my age with single digits). To say nothing of predicting a President with roots here.

We came here because when the Wizard completed his Ph.D., the two best academic job offers were at SUNY in Buffalo, New York, and the University of Hawaii. We were already in Pittsburgh...Buffalo? Hawaii?

I was not easily convinced to make the move at the time; we had a small child (with an age in the single digits) and it seemed so far away. Hawaii was nowhere I ever wanted to go. But a challenge was thrown down about my sense of adventure. And then I learned that Hawaii had a strong Chinese culture. I loved Chinese cooking, had a well-seasoned wok. I once taught a class in Chinese cooking to a bunch of folks in Appalachia, but that's another story.

We had a big garage sale, said goodbye to friends, drove from the New Jersey coast to Long Beach, across the Mainland (although I didn't call it that then) in three-and-a-half days, in a 1978 Honda station wagon with a young child and three cats. Oklahoma in August with the windows up and no air-con--- the cats might escape. (And in fact one did, in Barstow, but we retrieved her.) We all were suffering from imminent heat stroke. Still, due to the Wizard's well planned road trip, we visited the Grand Canyon and traveled on Route 66.

On arrival, I laughed at the Japanese lady in Honolulu who was complaining about the heat. We had just driven through Oklahoma at 100 degrees plus. And now I complain about the August humidity and heat...but it is really so trivial.

A plane trip from L.A. to Hawaii (where the cats had to go into a three-month quarantine) and I felt like we had landed in a foreign country, like an expat. We stayed in a hotel for two weeks, compliments of the university. The hotel was situated over a koi pond. Our son learned to swim in the pool there. Then we found a short-term lease on the edge of Waikiki, until we found a real house--with a Chinese landlady who liked cats. She was delighted that we were Episcopalians. "God always sends me Episcopalians, "she said. "Call me Po Po." (That's Cantonese for "Grandma".)

I wanted to work for the East-West Center, a government-sponsored academic agency, but I blew several opportunities to break in there. I worked at first for the local Blue Cross-Blue Shield outfit for a while, where I was astonished at the liberal policies provided under the Hawaii Prepaid Health Care Act. Later, Hillary Clinton would use the Hawaii model for her own failed reform plan. I have come to be proud and grateful for Hawaii's excellent health coverage and health care.

But better jobs awaited me in high-tech, a sector on which Hawaii has put much economic emphasis, recognizing that relying on agriculture and tourism is not enough. The third traditional sector, defense, has been reliable, and high-tech dual-use R&D is intertwined with the strategic military assets here. For a few years, I worked in one of the buildings in the photo up above. It was great; from the high-rise office we could watch the container ships do their 180 degree pivots to back into the loading area. Once we watched a pod of dolphins come into the harbor, to explore the area before returning to the sea.

So now Hawaii is where we make our living. People think we spend all our time at the beach. To be honest, we don't do that much anymore. But we try to take advantage of the beauty when we can. Actually I can't imagine coming here as a tourist; we get that little jolt sometimes when going into Waikiki for a business meeting (good hotels) or entertaining visiting Mainland friends. But it is nothing like living here, like being at home here.

Living here is about the people, the culture, the food, the environment -- which includes the natural phenomena like earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and tsunamis -- although generally they turn out to be manini (Hawaiian for small or petty) compared to the rest of the world's. Our recent hurricane threat first got people all agitated and then a little lethargic: just a tropical depression, oppressive humidity, although we knew it could have turned out to be disaster. It has in the past. (That was Tropical Storm Felicia. I worry about the hurricanes that come with "I" names --Iniki and Iwa were two of the big baddies in the recent past. So after Guillermo, and something "H," we get an "I" -- hopefully named "Ijustdon'tcare.")

I have some East Coast friends who have asked, even recently, "When are you coming home?" If you have lived half your life somewhere, that probably has become home. On the other hand, I could more easily move to Hong Kong or Wudang, than back to Buffalo or Pittsburgh.

Still, there are so many pleasures here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Feeling Peckish

After a few distractions I finally finished Two Kinds of Time, Graham Peck's 725-page volume of "personal observations [while] living among the Chinese people in their villages and their cities during [the war years] of struggle and turmoil."

I had been very preoccupied with why this terrific writer had pretty much vanished from the scene after TKT and Through China's Wall, his earlier memoir. He did write another book, China Remembered, but it's not really his story, about the Flying Tigers that was published in 1968, shortly before his death. Because he was quite adamant in his criticism of Chiang Kai Shek, and somewhat optimistic about the Communist potential, I was surprised that he escaped the McCarthy witch hunts that some other China hands (like Owen Lattimore) were victimized by.

He wrote in the last part of the book --which was omitted in a 1960s reprint --of Mao and Chou En Lai, that " I have no doubt that they are patriots and idealists, who sincerely believe China's salvation lies in the doctrine they have chosen. ... It is quite possible that their regime will become unpleasant and annoying, if not hateful and terrifying, to much of the old and middle class.... But there seems little reason to believe that in a decade or so, the Communists cannot benefit most peasants throughout China."

At the same time, he writes "...I cannot agree with the theories of dialectical materialism. ...I also dislike the Communists' doctrine...This strikes me as an even more grandiose and suspect attempt to carpenter the facts of life to fit a preconceived theory than recent American foreign policy has been. ...I would not like to be a citizen of a Communist state. I have no illusions that I could publish a book as critical of my government's policy as this volume, if the government were communist."

I can only wonder what he would have made of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiao Ping's economic revolution, Tian An Men in 1989, Hong Kong's return to the Motherland, the Beijing Olympics, the Chengdu Earthquake, the economic progress that has been made. Even though most of these things happened after he was done writing, after his passing, his book of observations is still worth reading for his insight and compassion.

I think I am treasuring his autograph in my first edition of TKT because I developed a bit of a crush on this guy...a gay artistic New England blue blood who happened to be in an interesting place in some interesting times. I would like to have been with him and I am inspired by his courage and ability to not only be in a place, but to have a well informed and articulate opinion about what was going on.

It will probably be a while before I pick up China Remembered, so I have directed my attention elsewhere for the moment. So my latest crush (roll over Tiny Tony) is on Vincent Zhao Wen Zhou, considered by some to be the new Jet Li, (like something's wrong with the old one?) who stars in an 18-hour Hong Kong TVB series called "The Master of Tai Chi." The owner of the shop where I bought some Chinese painting paper insisted I buy the DVD; she said it had great landscapes to inspire my painting, and it does. I thought it was a movie, but for $20 I got 25 45-minute episodes of this high definition series set in early '30s China. (I'm sure someone will tell me I could have gotten it cheaper.) It has themes a little like Star Wars and Harry Potter, a romantic story line, a philosophical point of view, and much great serious authentic kung fu (with minimal wire work). And the very beautiful Vincent Zhao Wen Zhou (or Zhuo, depending on what source material you look at.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Life is Poetry

When the kolea come back from Alaska, I always expect that Rainier cherry time is finished, but this season there seems to be some wonderful overlap of these joys of life--migrating birds and fruit harvests.

These Northwest imports (as in Mount Rainier), a glorious cross developed in the early 1950s between Bings and Vans, have been plentiful this year and I scored some today, probably the last batch of the season. I never heard of them when I was a kid on the East Coast; my aunt had a pie cherry tree that yielded just enough cherries for a pie...wily watchful birds usually beat her to the crop. They like Rainiers too, and growers routinely expect to lose a third of their crop to birds.

But now, I can think of no other fruit that is so perfect as the cultivated Rainier: pretty as an apple, meaty as a plum, sweet as a...cherry. (And also very profitable -- they can sell for a buck apiece in Japan.) They make me recall a poem about poetry (not fruit), the lovely Ars Poetica, by Archibald MacLeish, one of the two poems I ever memorized in high school. (The other was "The Charge of the Light Brigade; why would a 7th grade girl memorize such a thing..."Into the valley of death rode the six hundred"... well, it was dramatic for oral interpretation.)

Whenever I see the Rainiers I think of MacLeish's line,"A poem should be mute as a globed fruit." These cherries are poetry on a stem. They are never cheap, especially in Hawaii, but I always budget $50-$75 for them over the course of a season, and have never allowed one to spoil in the refrigerator. There weren't very many last year, so I probably exceeded my budget this summer.

One year, about this time, I was on my way out to fly to Hong Kong for an extended stay and I had a bag of them in the fridge. Everything else perishable had been cleared out, but I didn't want to discard the Rainers so I packed them in my carry-on. But TSA's security professional at the airport was reluctant to let me take them with me. Did he think they were cherry bombs? So I said, "Okay, but please, you must keep them, enjoy, they're really good." He modified his risk assessment and let me take them. And they were a godsend during a terrible hot and humid 24-hour layover in Guam.

With apologies to Lord Tennyson, I say, cherries to the left of us, cherries to the right of us, cherries behind us...the noble six hundred. Life IS a bowl of cherries.

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown --

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind --

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea --

A poem should not mean
But be.

(1926) Archibald MacLeish

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Confirmed Sightings on 8/8

I searched for Hello Dolly, my returned kolea this morning on my way to Chinese painting class, but was disappointed to not find her. But on return home, I spotted one in another neighborhood, searching for bugs in the grass near Safeway, and when I made the turn into my complex, there was Dolly, like she was waiting for me. They are definitely back! A two-kolea day. A double eight day!

Not This Baroness!

It's not me!

Sienna Miller as The Baroness
in new film GI JOE

Although I must say that there was a time when I would have loved that catsuit to jump in and out of my Miata like Emma Peel zipping around in her Lotus Elan.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
in The Avengers

Friday, August 7, 2009

Early Arrival?

Now that it's August, I have been anticipating the return of the kolea (Pacific Golden Plovers) whose daily presence I have missed since late April, when they flew off to Alaska to breed. They are usually due back in Hawaii on or about August 26, but this morning, as I left my wooded apartment complex, and as I was consciously thinking about the birds, there appeared one on the street. I stopped to chat and photographed her. I'll call her Hello Dolly. She has good camouflage as you can see. Since I have seen none since they left, I do not assume this bird stayed over the summer; they are territorial and I would expect to have seen her sometime in the past three months.

What brought her back two weeks early? Could it be the full moon? Perhaps it was the world-wide meditation for peace that was scheduled for the peak of this lunar cycle (which I regrettably slept through; it was to occur at 3 a.m. Thursday, August 6. I do recall that I slept well and contentedly.)

Could it have been Sarah Palin's resignation?

I'm just glad the bird is home. Like sprouts on pruned branches, trade winds after tropical depressions, it renews my faith in the cycles of Tao.

The Sprouts of Tao